At the Nasher, Ken Price's Ceramics Are Big and Bold and, Lord Reltny, a Little Dirty

It's hard to do justice to the freewheeling radiance of Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Suffice it to say that you should see the work of the late Mr. Price for its combination of cheeky razzmatazz and idiosyncratic imagination. As the second stop on a three-leg U.S. tour that germinated from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and finishes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Nasher's very particular spaces have been reconfigured by legendary architect Frank Gehry, a close friend of Price, for an experience as much about moving through space as looking at objects.

Although his ceramic sculptures are undeniably playful -- dressing his pieces in layers of feathery house paints, or molding color-clashing naughty bits inside Day-Glo orifices -- Price's work is largely inscrutable. He worked with feisty persistence in the unpopular and unsexy medium of ceramics for his entire career. This exhibition begins with his last art -- larger, livelier, more tempting to touch (but you do not!) -- and moves backward, incorporating everything, but saving the earlier, toy-like small works for the intimate space downstairs.

See also: He Comes in Color Everywhere: Immediately See The Nasher's Ken Price Retrospective, Designed by Frank Gehry

Price, a reliably inventive artist, died months before this show opened in L.A. He was in the studio making new art to the end. His decline in physical health seems to have infused his final finished works with the personal humor of exaggerated sex organs in tonal disguise. I challenge anyone to look at "Little D" (2011) or "Vona" (2008) without seeing flaccid phalluses. Or, if your passion heads to another vice, mischievous bratwursts. None of the work is representational, but oh, how suggestive it all is. Moving through Gehry's redesign of the Nasher's interior galleries is a tireless sense of interaction between these crazy pieces, just as if they were the manifest objects of an orchestra or band -- specifically, either the Mothers of Invention or the Electric Mayhem, take your pick.

The show also features sterling pieces like the surf-inspired "Venus" (2000), the architecturally impudent "Orange" (1987) and the sybaritic excess of "Underhung" (1997), which is more imposing in Gehry's remarkable spacial revamp than one would think from the photo. I could go on about his wicked 1960s work and vital little experiments from Price's early days, which gave some indication of what would happen later. It's consistently luminous, and it's haunting, and wily, and wild.


There is a sculpture in the show named "Reltny" (1983). I was being escorted through the show by its curator, Stephanie Barron, who sized me up as a pervert within seconds of meeting me (it's possible I told her). When we got to "Reltny" she said, "This one's called 'Reltny.' Do you know what 'Reltny' means?" I said no. "Look it up," said the distinguished curator. "I think you'll like it."

Look it up. I think you'll like it.

Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective continues at the Nasher Sculpture Center through May 12.

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